Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Geneva 2 opens up ...... Some items of note on the Syria Conference !

Russia Today.....

​Syrian opposition refuses to meet govt face-to-face at Geneva 2 talks

Published time: January 24, 2014 00:41
Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Ahmad Jarba gives a press conference on the "Geneva II" peace talks, on January 23, 2014 at the Intercontinental hotel in Geneva.(AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Ahmad Jarba gives a press conference on the "Geneva II" peace talks, on January 23, 2014 at the Intercontinental hotel in Geneva.(AFP Photo / Philippe Desmazes)
The Syrian opposition involved in the Geneva 2 peace talks said a face-to-face meeting with President Bashar Assad’s representatives is unlikely to happen. Formal discussions on how to alleviate the ferocious civil war are set to begin on Friday.
United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi will move between the two delegations at the talks in Switzerland, which will ramp up Friday under the patronage of the UN and world powers like Russia and the United States.
Haitham Al-Maleh, a senior member of the opposition coalition, said it was “not easy” to sit in the same room with Assad’s regime during Wednesday’s opening of the conference. He does not expect the more intensive negotiations to involve the two sides sitting down with one another, either.
“I don’t think we’re ready for that yet. The gap is too big,” he told the Times of Israel.
On Thursday, the opposition stayed firm with its major demand that President Assad should step down, as his “regime is dead” and the country is looking “into the future without him.”
"This is the basis of our negotiations and we will demand it," Syrian opposition chief Ahmed Jarba said, according to Reuters.
Syrian government officials in attendance left the talks on Thursday without making a statement, insisting that Assad has no plans to step down.
"Obviously he is not ready at this point in time," US Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television.
Jarba also said that Russia, Assad’s ally, has pledged it is not “holding on” to the Syrian president.“When I met Lavrov last week in Paris, he confirmed that Russia isn’t holding on to Assad,” he said.
The palpable fragility of the talks centers around arguments for and against Assad’s role in a transitional government. Both sides are threatening to pull out if their demands are not met.
"We have started to look into the future without him. Assad and all of his regime is in the past now. Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead," Jarba said, underscoring a tenor of limited expectations at the Geneva 2 talks.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) and his delegation take part in the so-called Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux.(AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem (L) and his delegation take part in the so-called Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux.(AFP Photo / Fabrice Coffrini)

The first day of talks in Switzerland, on Wednesday, was riddled with harsh denunciations made by both sides of the other’s lack of compromise and brutality on the ground during a fierce civil war.
Meanwhile, other participants defended their own prerogatives. Western countries, Arab states, and Turkey supported the opposition in calling for a transitional government that excludes Assad. Russia pushed for the talks to be focused on tamping down terrorism.
One opposition representative has stated that a slower, step-by-step process is needed. He said that practical moves like prisoner swaps, ceasefires, weapons withdrawals, and aid centers should be established before any talk of Syria’s political future begins.
Islamist fighters antagonistic to both Assad and the opposition officially backed by the US and others are not represented at the talks. Al-Qaeda-linked Sunni militant groups, which control large swaths of territory, have accused opposition members in attendance of being traitors. Assad’s main regional ally, Iran, is also not involved in the Geneva 2 conference. The nation’s invitation was rescinded by the UN shortly before talks began this week.
Over 130,000 people are believed to have perished since the country’s civil war broke out in 2011. Nearly a third of Syria’s 22 million residents have been displaced, and half are in need of international aid, according to Reuters.


( Although not officially invited , Iran still a player in these talks... )

The conference of 40 foreign ministers opening Wednesday, Jan. 22, in the Swiss town of Montreux got off to a shaky start and an agenda stripped of sensitive political issues. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Bashar Assad’s presidency was a ”red line” and information minister Omran al-Zoubi denied there was any civil war in Syria at all, only “a fight between government and terrorists.”

Their words came on the heels of the fiasco of UN Secretary Ban Ki-moon’s invitation to Iran to attend the conference, which he was forced by Washington to rescind over Tehran’s refusal to subscribe to the Geneva 1 Communique, which called for its ally Assad’s ultimate removal as president.

So, although it was originally billed as the first meeting of the Syrian government and opposition to discuss a transitional government for leading Syria out of a brutal civil war, the political goal receded before the foreign ministers even took their seats.

And meanwhile, DEBKAfile reports, an Iranian delegation secretly arrived in Montreux Tuesday night after all, on the understanding that it would not take part in the conference discussions and would put up at a hotel outside the town. It was obvious to all the participants that although officially absent, the Iranian presence loomed very large over any possible decision-making. This accorded with US Secretary of State John Kerry’s comments earlier this month that Iran’s admission to the “sidelines of the conference” was admissible if its input was positive.  

Against this formidable lineup, the Syrian opposition is seriously under-represented by the divided Syrian National Coalition which is backed by the West but cannot claim to speak for the rebel movement.
In the ten days to two weeks of the conference, substantial political issues will be pitfalls better avoided to save the conference from breaking up amid irreconcilable differences.

After Moallem declared, “Nobody can touch the Assad presidency!” there is not much point in discussing the formation of a representative transitional government in Damascus to replace the Assad regime, or the withdrawal of foreign forces fighting in the country, such as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese Hizballah.

The conference will limit itself to discussing initial arrangements for opening up a limited number of corridors for bringing essential aid to the populations in rebel-held areas under Syrian army siege. Enabling this requires local ceasefires between the warring sides.

These limited objectives were approved by Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin when they talked by phone Tuesday night.

United Nations mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he hoped the first day of talks at Montreux's Palace Hotel can lead to detailed discussions down the lake in Geneva later that would at least bring some relief to suffering Syrian civilians and possibly prisoner exchanges.

The Americans and Russians are counting on the Assad regime and Iran to undersign these limited objectives. Geneva 2 can then be be presented to the Middle East and world at large as the first breakthrough towards the gradual winding down of the Syrian war.

In the view of DEBKAfile’s analysts, this winding down could take years. Therefore, the discussions initiated at Montreux will be drawn out for as long as Washington, Moscow and Tehran see some progress however meager and the Syrian ruler is willing to cooperate.

Assad and his spokesmen scorned to respond to the publication of images presented Monday by British investigators attesting to the alleged murder and torture of Syrian detainees “on an industrial scale,” coupled with a demand to put the Syrian president on trial for war crimes in The Hague.

He perceived these incriminating images as designed to overshadow and negate his appearance in Geneva as victor in the current stage of the Syria war and reduce the leverage of his backers, Russia and Iran, by smearing them by association as abettors of a war criminal.

Assad finds every reason for confidence that the outcome of the second Geneva conference on the Syrian conflict will overlay Geneva 1 eighteen months ago which required his removal. He now sees himself as the first ruler to beat down the Arab Revolt which began sweeping the region three years ago and strong enough for US and European intelligence agencies to send emissaries to Damascus last week to discuss joint action against Al Qaeda. So long as Moscow and Iran are behind him, no party hoping to achieve the first steps for ending the conflict can afford to avoid engaging him directly. Blackening him won't work.

Anti- War .....

Lots of Anger, Little Content as Syria Talks Begin

UN Chief Repeatedly Interrupts Syrian FM's Speech

by Jason Ditz, January 22, 2014
With Secretary of State John Kerry insisting the only goal of the Geneva II peace talks, which began today, is to establish a new “transitional” government for Syria, it is less and less clear why Syria’s current government was even invited.
It certainly wasn’t to hear them speak, as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon repeatedlyinterrupted Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem’s opening remarks, mostly to complaining that he was taking too much time and making “inflammatory” comments.
Moallem’s comments centered around concerns about the rise of al-Qaeda dominated rebels in Syria’s north, and warnings toTurkey and other nations to stop backing such factions on the ground.
All that seemed very much beside the point to officials at the talks, however, and once Moallem was finally finished, the speeches continued, with little talk of even hazarding an attempt at stopping any of the fighting on the ground.
That’s not surprising, of course, as materially none of the rebel fighters were represented at the talks. The lone “rebel” faction, the opposition Syrian National Coalition, is hoping to get things over as soon as possible and get themselves appointed Syria’s new “governing body.”
Much of Syria’s confusion about the talks appears to be time-sensitive, as Moallem’s speech seemed built around last week’s comments by Kerry and Russian FM Sergey Lavrov, talking up partial ceasefires and humanitarian corridors. All of that was endorsed by the Assad government and therefore immediately condemned by Kerry, who now sees efforts to stop the fighting as a “distraction” from the true purpose of the peace talks, installing a more pro-US regime.

The Real Story at Geneva II: Foreign Meddling in Syria ‘Must Stop’
John Glaser, January 22, 2014
The Geneva II talks on the Syrian civil war in Switzerland started today. In the lead up to the conference, the media focus, unfortunately, had been on which parts of the Syrian opposition would attend and whether or not Iran, the Assad regime’s close ally, would attend (the U.S. pressured the UN to uninvite Iran at the last minute for not accepting the Geneva Communique).
And today, the media focused on two developments: (1) Secretary of State John Kerry’s hardline rhetoric about the Syrian regime’s crimes and how Assad cannot be a part of any transition government, and (2) the tense back-and-forth between UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, the latter being nothing more than a disagreement over how much time the foreign minister should have to speak.
From where I’m sitting, the real story of the Geneva II conference was all but ignored. It was summed up by Ban Ki-Moon in a press conference following the talks when hesaid, “all of the countries who have been providing arms to either side must stop and encourage them to engage in political dialogue.”
This opinion, which Moon has repeatedly expressed, echoes that of countless other experts. Back in 2012, UN rights chief Navi Pillay condemned the continued flow of weapons from foreign powers to both sides in the Syrian conflict. “The ongoing provision of arms to the Syrian government and to its opponents feeds additional violence,” she said in the text of remarks made to the Security Council.
James Dobbins, director of the RAND a former US assistant secretary of state told NPR recently, “the external environment in which sides are providing arms to both of the contending parties—all of that suggests that the situation’s going to continue to deteriorate.”
When both sides to a civil war are emboldened by their foreign benefactors, neither feels vulnerable enough to compromise. This virtually ensures perpetual stalemate.
“A continuous supply of weapons to both sides—whether from Russia, Iran or the Gulf States—only maintains the parties’ perception that fighting is a better option than negotiating,” Dr. Florence Gaub, a researcher at the NATO Defense College, wrote at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last year. “This explains why, in terms of statistical probability, an external supply of weapons lengthens a civil war.”
The U.S. has grown more and more trepidatious about the Syrian opposition. Some rebels are getting training and weapons from the U.S., but it is by no means significant (many U.S. officials have even said an Assad victory would be better than al-Qaeda-linked rebels grabbing hold the reins of state). But U.S. allies, particularly in the Arab Gulf states, do continue to aid extremist militants in Syria. Iran and Russia, wary of U.S. (or U.S.-allied) gains in Syria, continue to fully back the Assad regime. Some political will, and a minimal amount of honesty (which we didn’t get from Kerry), could put a stop to this and help mitigate the conflict considerably.

Major Rebel Faction Withdraws Ahead of Syria Talks

Opposes Any Negotiated Settlement

by Jason Ditz, January 21, 2014
The sudden invitation and uninvitation of Iran to the Geneva II peace talks, set to begin Wednesday in Montreaux, have stirred up quite a bit of acrimony on their own, but the situation is getting much worse, and the talks much more pointless.
Now the only rebel faction involved in the talks, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), has lost its large internal party, the Syrian National Council, which iswithdrawing from the talks, from the coalition, and from participation in the international community’s dealings in general.
The Council is citing its objections to the Geneva II talks as a reason for its decision, saying it rejects any negotiated settlement with the Assad government. This leaves the already small SNC even more irrelevant among the rebels.
Yet the SNC remains literally the only show in town in Montreaux, as the much larger Islamist factions have likewise rejected the talks and in many cases weren’t even invited.
The US insists the goal of the talks is to impose regime change to “end the violence,” but with materially all of the rebel combatants uninvolved in the conference there’s no reason to think it’s going anywhere.

Syrian Kurds Declare Autonomous Region in Northeast

Kurdish Administration Dubs Region Rojava

by Jason Ditz, January 21, 2014
Having been snubbed outright from the Geneva II peace talks, the Syrian Kurdish parties have agreed to establish an autonomous region spanning the nation’s northeast.
Dubbed Rojava (the traditional Kurdish name for the region), the Kurdish government will be centered in the capital city of Qamishli, along the border with Turkey, and is preparing a new constitution.
Turkey has previously threatened “action” against Kurdish autonomy, which is the exact opposite result from what they envisioned the Syrian Civil War producing. The Syrian rebels have also claimed autonomy is “hostile” to their goal of conquering the whole nation.
The Kurdish factions has initially envisioned the administration as keeping Syrian Kurdistan out of the civil war and reintegrating with the eventual winning side, but as the war continues to stalemate they seem to be setting up a more or less permanent autonomous region.

Russia Today.....

‘No one, Mr. Kerry, has right to withdraw president’s legitimacy’ - Syrian FM

Published time: January 22, 2014 08:52
Edited time: January 22, 2014 11:25

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L-R), U.N.-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Acting Director Genera Michael Moeller and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a plenary session in Montreux, Switzerland January 22, 2014. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L-R), U.N.-Arab League Envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Acting Director Genera Michael Moeller and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry attend a plenary session in Montreux, Switzerland January 22, 2014. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Geneva 2 quickly descended into a war of words, with each successive speaker ratcheting up the rhetoric as tensions from the protracted civil war which has ravaged the country for three years quickly bled into the peace conference.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday kicked off the long-awaited international peace conference for Syria, opening the international bid to end the blodshed.
Ban said the conference provided an opportunity for all sides to show unity, saying “today is a day of fragile but real hope.”
The UN Chief pointed a finger at the Syrian government, saying if the democratic demands of the Syrian people had been listened to at the outset of the conflict, "we might not be here today." Ban painted a grim picture of a country racked by violence and lawlessness, urging all sides to put an end to terrorist attacks and unequivocally allow foreign aid into the country.
Taking the floor from Ban, Lavrov delivered his points in rapid fire succession, noting that the historical responsibility for peace rested on the heads of everyone in attendance.
The Russian FM said it was necessary not to allow shockwaves emanating from Syria to engulf the whole of the Middle East. In an apparent slight to Western partners in attendance, Lavrov said that any attempt to impose models of governance on Middle Eastern States and North Africa would “turn back the clock”, noting one needn’t look far to find examples.
Reiterating Russia’s long standing position, Lavrov said no solution in Syria could be found via the use of force, and it was up to the Syrian people to independently determine their own future.
Lavrov stressed that the current atmosphere of intolerance and sectarian strife is alien to Syria, saying Russia feared the mass exodus of Christians who had lived in the country for over 2,000 years. He warned of the dangerous trend of “internal contradictions” within Islam, saying Russia hoped the Islamic world would become united so that it could take its proper place in the polycentric world order.
He concluded his remarks by saying that there was not a 100 percent chance of success, but there is a realistic chance peace will be attained in Syria.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon opens the so-called Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux. (AFP Photo)
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon opens the so-called Geneva II peace talks on January 22, 2014 in Montreux. (AFP Photo)
Lavrov yielded the floor to his US counterpart John Kerry, who said a future transitional government of Syria does not have a place for thousands of violent extremists, who are currently fighting in the country. He also alleged that the current government in Damascus attracts those extremists as a magnet, and that until a transitional government is formed, there is no hope of defeating terrorists in Syria.
Kerry highlighted a longstanding difference between Russia and the US by insisting that Syrian President Bashar Assad must step down. Russia has long maintained it is up to the Syrian people to decide what Roll Assad will play in any future government.
Meanwhile, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem warned Wahhabi militants fighting under the cover of revolution are seeking to plunge Syria back 1,000 years in accordance to their idea of Islam. He said the radical Islamists are killing civilians, desecrating graves and bombing mosques, all while enjoying support from some of Syria’s neighbors.
Muallem singled out Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, saying his government had backed the militants, only to discover that this would backfire on Turkey. He said people should remember an age-old adage, which says you shouldn’t watch your neighbor’s house burn, because the fire will spread to your own home.
The Syrian minister was unrelenting in his criticism of the Turkey-based opposition, saying that they were staying in five-star hotels while people in Syria died and sold their support to the highest bidder. His speech, however, was interrupted by Ban, who asked him to wrap up his comments. It led to a debate between Ban and Muallem, who insisted that he needed more time to present Syria’s view of the conflict.
“You’ve spoken for 25 minutes,” he told the head of the UN.
“I need at least 30,” Muallem replied.
He also rebuffed Secretary Kerry, saying no one had the right to “withdraw legitimacy” from the Syrian president or government. It is the Syrian people, he said, how have the right to choose.
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (L) leads his delegation during a plenary session in Montreux January 22, 2014. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem (L) leads his delegation during a plenary session in Montreux January 22, 2014. (Reuters/Gary Cameron)
Following Muallem's remarks, Ban reminded other participants to refrain from making derogatory statements.
Ahmad Jarba, who heads Syria’s main opposition National Coalition, did not heed Ban's request, saying that photographs depicting torture allegedly conducted by government forces was similar to war crimes committed by the Nazis.
Jabra called on the Syrian government delegation to commit itself to a full transition that would transfer power from Assad to an interim administration.
Not pulling any punches, Jabra was quick to throw out a charge usually levied by the government, branding President Assad is a terrorist. Saying it was in fact Assad who had facilitated the rise of Al-Qaeda linked terrorists in the country, he made it clear that the National Coalition is unwilling to deal with the Syrian president and said his resignation is in fact the intended goal of the gathering.
Following the firebrand speeches delivered by the Syrian government and the opposition, China's FM Wang Yi delivered a much more sober address, promising 20 billion yuan ($ US 3.3 billion) in assistance to the war torn country.
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal had choice words for the Syrian government, saying there was no room in the country’s transition for those whose hands are “stained with blood.”
Prince Saud called on all foreign forces, including Hezbollah fighters from neighboring Lebanon and Iranian Revolutionary Guards who are backing Damascus against rebel forces, to leave the country at once.
Conspicuously absent from the conference was Iran, whose last-minute invitation was rescinded by the UN Chief after the Syrian opposition threatened to boycott the talks.
Iranian President Hasan Rouhani said the Islamic Republic’s absence from the proceedings would hinder chances of a successful outcome. 
"Because of the lack of influential players in the meeting, I doubt about the Geneva 2 meeting's success in fighting against terrorism ... and its ability to resolve the Syria crisis," Rouhani said.
On Tuesday, Lavrov said Iran’s absence from Geneva 2 was a “mistake, but not a catastrophe.”

Map of the Day: Who is Invited to the Syria Peace Talks (And Who’s Not)

This map comes via a tweet from BBC World.


In all, 29 countries are invited to the peace talks, which kick off in Switzerland tomorrow. Conspicuously absent is Iran. Over the weekend, the UN extended a last minute invitation to Iran, but then rescinded it under heavy pressure from the United States.

This was a mistake. Iran is Assad’s most important regional backer, providing funding and arms to the embattled regime. The whole point of peace talks is to bring those with a stake in the conflict around the table to find points of mutual accommodation. It is hard to see how excluding Iran makes a viable peace more likely.

The ostensible reason for the disinvitation was because Iran would not formally agree that the basis of the peace talks are a previous agreement from 2012 (called “Geneva I” in diplospeak) which states that a transitional government mutually acceptable to the Assad regime and rebels should guide a political transition in Syria. But that is more a diversion because it is really only the USA that is setting preconditions for the talk. The Russians do not seem to agree.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov of Russia said Mr. Ban’s withdrawal of his invitation to Iran was “of course a mistake.” But, signaling that Moscow did not see the affair as a deal-breaker, he said it was “no catastrophe” and Russia would continue to “push for a dialogue between the Syrian parties without any preconditions,” The Associated Press reported.

The prospects for a positive outcome for these talks are distressingly low. Excluding one of the most important regional actors reduces those chances of success even further. Iran, right now, is part of the problem. For the peace talks to be successful, they need to be part of the solution. As of now, they won’t even have a seat at the table.